The Path from Executive Education to Corporate Innovation

dilbert-cartoon_1Posted by Ikhlaq Sidhu, December 23rd, 2013

I’m on my way back from Shanghai after being invited to work with a group of Chinese executives on their product innovation and intrapreneurship strategies, using aspects of my newly developed model for professional/executive education. It’s really an exciting model, that I used with Coca-Cola on their beverage strategy in China, with Tencent, a leading retailer with hundreds of stores, GM, World Health products, and other multi-nationals seeking global innovation.

Simultaneous Translation of Coca-Cola Exec in China

Photo: Coca-Cola and World Health Products executive discussing strategy options for China in Shanghai with simultaneous translation. December 16, 2013.

The Issue:

While many institutions and programs I’ve worked with excel at providing executive education programs with a clear impact, these are more the exception than the rule. For many, I’d say that the time has come for a change. Historically, executive education has focused on succession planning. The formula was that you take experienced, trusted managers and then have them spend some time being polished by academic experts. And that has become a big business: Business Schools today make about 40% of their revenue from Executive Education. That model needs to be refreshed, if it is to effectively solve the problem of innovating in a global environment.

First, most Executive Programs have mixed reviews in terms of quality. It turns out that half of professors actually score below 3.5/5. In other words not all program professors are “best in class”.

Second, case method and other generic materials are often not relevant. They provide very few targeted insights for the executives. Picking useful cases requires significant industry experience-based judgment and they must be supplemented with additional insights. Many of these programs simply do not have ways to address the actual context, strategy, and threats that their firm’s executives are facing.

Third, and this is a pretty important one, these programs are not accountable. There is no mechanism to follow up to see what came from the experience. Sometimes the courses can be “interesting” or “fun”, but in the next week, its business as usual.

And my best reason to believe that it’s time for a change is that most of these programs are focused on research results of the past. Firms live in the present and plan for the future. In fact, the pace of innovation has been accelerating significantly in the last 100 years and its not slowing down. The current issue for most firms, as pointed out by banking innovator Carlos Beldarrain, is that, the minimum pace of innovation to simply survive, is also accelerating. The time is right to find a model that works even better.

The Solution:

Here is the challenge I offer to those interested in evolving what is generally today’s state of the art for executive education:

  1. We need to actually focus on the goals of the firms. This means that successful programs will build in the time and methods for the faculty to actually know the company and its people at a deeper level.
  2. There has to be a mix of academic and industry experts. For year’s at Berkeley, we have been bringing Silicon Valley know how into our teaching program though entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and executives. Choosing the right faculty is also critical because they need to have the breadth of how to teach executives as well as a relevancy on current industry issues.
  3. The firm’s executive champions have to be directly involved. I’ve always been known as an innovator. But with experience I’ve learned, no matter how capable you are at innovation, you can’t innovate within an organization without “permission” from the organization to actually create the innovation. For this reason, its critical that the executive sponsors participate to “offer the permission” for the participants to innovate, and to let them know that its safe to do so. By the way, “some people” are going to innovate anyway, as Steve Jobs said, you can’t stop them and you can’t ignore them either.
  4. It’s really about the project, not the lecture or the case. Yes, there are essential materials to cover, but the project has to be a real problem of the firm. Barriers such as confidentiality or NDAs cannot be excuses to work on fake projects.
  5. Projects need to be holistic. A company’s project cannot be only about design or only about strategy or only about branding. No, you need complete alignment on the project, because the result has to be financial success and impact or maybe learning and failure. Isolated skill development is not an executive level challenge.
  6. And finally, we need to have accountability of the result. What happened after one quarter, one year, or longer. You can’t teach it if you have not lived it in some way, and you also are not qualified to offer your certification if your institution does not have skin in the game, just like your students.

For institutions and programs who can evolve and incorporate these aspects, I respectfully suggest that it will result in a big step forward for both education and innovation.

Get Out of Your Box – in Madrid

Post by Ikhlaq Sidhu

Comfort Zone Scale
Comfort Zone Scale

I’ve just returned from Madrid, teaching in the final week of our inaugural Global Engineering Leadership Program.  This program extends the content I designed for the Silicon Valley Professional Program, with an Asian and European perspective on technology firm leadership.

While the program covers a variety of new and interesting topics, including Positive Psychology, What Does it Take to Innovate Within a Large Firm?, and New Management Issues with Big Data, the most surprising discussion theme related to the implications of a person’s comfort or tolerance for ambiguity.  Tolerance for ambiguity is often correlated to innovation and entrepreneurship.  But how do you measure it?  Is your professional comfort zone different than your personal comfort zone?  If you are more comfortable with ambiguity, will you be less stressed, more effective in your career, or even happier as an individual?

Take a minute to measure your own ambiguity tolerance by answering a few questions in this link,  Assess your comfort level with ambiguity, and help support our research in this area.  Research results will be posted to this website.

Our Madrid discussions started by reviewing the research in “Quant Mentality” by Prof. Paris de l’Etraz, with whom I am collaborating to further his work.  Prof. de I’Etraz originally defined a “Comfort Zone Scale”  (illustrated below) to self-assess a person’s comfort with increasing levels of personal and professional ambiguity.


The scale is simple to use and intuitive to understand.  On the left of the drawing is Certainty and on the right is Uncertainty.  The levels P1 to P4 refer to your personal life.  P1 means you hate uncertainty in your personal life, while P4 means that you are very comfortable with uncertainty in your personal life.  Similarly, W1 means you hate uncertainty in your professional life, while W4 means that you are very comfortable with uncertainty in your professional life.

If you are P2/W4, for example, it means that in your personal life you are a bit careful and dislike uncertainty while in your professional life you are willing to go to Alaska to try to sell ice to Eskimos!

Think about this …what are you? This is effectively the size of the mental box that holds you back from experimenting and testing new ideas.  When evaluating your own comfort zone size, here are some quick guidelines:

  1. The scale is designed to find out if you “can be comfortable” having progressively less certainty about what will happen as a result of your decision.
  2. The scale should reflect your “ability to be comfortable” not the ability to withstand discomfort.  So if you are in an environment which causes you to take repeated risks that you are not comfortable with, then you are not higher on the P1-4 or W1-4 scale.

I consider myself a P2/W3, while Prof. de l’Etraz says he is a P1/W4.  We suspect that a measure of your comfort level and tolerance for ambiguity while making critical decisions may be seminal to innovation, entrepreneurship, and engineering leadership overall.   Moreover, people seem to change levels throughout their lives.  It’s also likely that this psychological characteristic could be changed with training, for those who want it.  So go ahead, use the link to let us know where you are on the scale.  It’s been a big topic in Madrid!